Wednesday, February 14, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions for Barbara Tran

Precedented Parroting (Palimpsest Press, 2024) is Barbara Tran’s first full-length poetry collection. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Hamilton Arts & Letters, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, and The Paris Review. A co-writer of two XR short films, Official Selections of SXSW in 2022 and 2024, Barbara is a co-editor of Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose, 25th Anniversary Edition (2023).

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

The book that has changed my life the most is not one that I wrote but one that I co-edited: Watermark Vietnamese American Poetry & Prose. Through our work on the book,  Monique Truong and Khoi Luu, my co-editors, and I would get to know writers of the Vietnamese diaspora from across the United States and stretching into Canada. We would forge deep, lasting friendships.

At a celebration for Watermark’s 25th anniversary edition, contributor maura nguyễn donohue remarked that while some of us were meeting in person for the very first time, it felt as if we’d known one another for decades.

That to me is the power of a book.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction? 

I knocked on fiction’s door first. No one understood what my stories were “about,” but they found certain paragraphs beautiful. I like to believe that my fiction writing has improved somewhat since my college days.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

The greater challenge for me is pausing the idea generator long enough to cultivate one or a few ideas beyond the seedling stage.

With poetry, in general when the words come, they come quickly. Then, it’s a slow process of finding the order of the lines, teasing out a shape on the page, and refining the language. I can spend hours simply moving line breaks back and forth.

In recent years, I’ve been collaborating on film scripts. That process is much slower. It involves copious notes simply to transport myself to the designated time and place.

4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

For me, a great variety of things—nature, visual art, overheard conversation, dreams, someone else’s lines, an unusual object—can serve as a springboard for a poem or short story.

I’m most fascinated when writing bubbles up from a subconscious place, and things that I didn’t know I was thinking about spill onto the page. In order to tap more deeply into this, I have to let go of my preconceived notions about what I would like to accomplish and focus my attention on hearing the voice that’s speaking to or through me. There’s no room for thinking about an end product.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

To me, readings exist outside of the creative process. By that point, it almost feels like the poems aren’t even mine anymore, but rather, independent creatures with their own lives.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

So many concerns. How do we give voice to the silenced, the sidelined, the misrepresented? What makes us human? How do we retain/regain our humanity? I can’t write with these questions in the foreground though. They would be paralyzing. As I focus on imagery, music, and form, however, larger concerns are always whispering in the shadows. I think of the grounding that poetry offers as a kind of meditation, an invitation to return to our softer selves, an oblique way of addressing these larger concerns.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Teaching empathy. What more important lesson is there?

Those who have not seen Arthur Jafa’s devastating—and somehow simultaneously jubilant—short film “Love is the Message, the Message is Death,” please stop reading this and go watch. It’s available on YouTube. Never have 7 minutes altered my consciousness so deeply.

Elsewhere, Jafa talks about empathy as a muscle that needs to be exercised, one that is disproportionately exercised in those who have little, if any, access to accurate representations of self in the dominant culture. Given the current state of the world, though, I think we could all use more practice slipping on others’ shoes and walking around in them.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both. For me, writing necessitates climbing so deep into my head that the world’s grip on me loosens. Working with an outside editor requires distance and perspective, an ability to see the full landscape. I find it difficult to switch modes. Or maybe I just like staying in my happy place, where all my choices are the best ones. My gratitude to Jim Johnstone, Anstruther Books, for his patience with me.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Don’t look straight down the steep mountain, just point to the next place you’d like to be. And go. (snowboarding instructor)

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I’m not always certain what genre I am working in at a given moment. Some pieces begin more amorphously. With those, the labels come later, usually imposed when I need to check a box.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Days typically begin with barking (not me), then walking (one of the dogs and me). Coffee. On most days, a short meditation. After that, it’s all up for grabs. For me, routines can be difficult to implement. I’m neurodivergent. I live with a cattle dog though, and Sprocket has cattle dog persistence and a very high-pitched voice, so we rarely diverge from the walking routine.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

When I make time for it, painting is an effective release valve for the pressure I put on myself. It’s also excellent for clarifying my thoughts.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Steamed rice.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

With this book, nature was a strong influence. I was living temporarily in L.A., and it seemed to me that there were all kinds of portents in the natural world then and there. The birds were raucous every morning and sometimes deep into the night. Feral parrots would come screaming through the skies. Ravens left plundered rodent carcasses strewn on the road. Then, the global pandemic hit. George Floyd was murdered. We took to the streets. Wildfires ravaged forests. It all felt connected.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Collaborative works by the group and writing by the individual members of She Who Has No Master(s), a collective of women and nonbinary writers and artists of the Vietnamese diaspora. Dao Strom, Hoa Nguyen, Diana Khoi Nguyen, Vi Khi Nao, Lily Hoàng, Cathy Linh Che ... a growing group. Beacons to my writing and salves to my life.

And Monique Truong. Always.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Visit Angkor Wat.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Were it not for severe childhood allergies, I would likely be a veterinarian.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Curiosity. And a strong dislike of sticky fingers.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

What I’m reading now: Tina Campt’s A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See.

Monster by Kore-eda Hirokazu

20 - What are you currently working on?

On one of the front burners is a collaboration with the Canadian-born artist Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn, currently based in Ho Chi Minh City. I’m working on a script for her feature film, inspired by her PhD research on the life of Khánh Ký, an early 20th century Vietnamese photographer who used his artistry as an instrument against the colonial state. It’s a fictional film with speculative elements.

In between other projects, poems continue to make appearances. A recent one called “Yellow-bellied Sapsucker,” in particular, makes me smile.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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